Belated RIP


So, I know I'm late on this and everything, but the man would appreciate the irony of a belated death-day greeting. I'm sure he would point out that he's hardly in a hurry - he's got all the time in the world now. What it boils down to is this:

A great soul has left the earth. And since many others have been more thorough and eloquent than I would be enumerating his gifts and lamenting his loss, I thought I would just reminisce a little bit about a time that Kurt Vonnegut was particularly helpful to me.

It was in Madrid, in 1997. I was sixteen, and more homesick than I have ever been in my life. I had been living in Spain for a summer, and had lost all perspective on absence and eventual return. "Home" no longer even seemed real to me, although now I would snap up a summer in sunny Spain without a backward glance, secure in the knowledge (and maybe I shouldn't be) that Portland would be here when I got back. But back then I was miserable as only a sixteen-year-old can be. And I was in a transitional part of the trip (transitions have never been my strong point) between the segment where I was living with my host family in Galicia, and the segment where my parents and I would be doing tourist stuff around the rest of the country. I was staying in the dorms at the Universidad de Madrid with all the other kids in my program, most of whom were just there because they could score legal alcohol. So they were staying up all night drinking - and singing, and puking - very loudly, in the rooms above and to the side of me.

I was so exhausted from acute homesickness, forced sleep deprivation and general teen angst that I broke down in tears one afternoon, sitting against a tree in the Retiro. A kind old Spanish man saw me crying, came over and tried to find out what was wrong, but I didn't have the word for "to miss" in Spanish. In my agitated state most of my Spanish seemed to desert me, actually, so the conversation went something like:

Him: "What's wrong? Don't cry!"
Me: "Nothing, it's fine."
Him: "Then why are you crying?"
Me: "Don't worry about it."
Him: "Do you need any help?"
Me: "Um...I don't have any parents!"
Him: "You are an orphan? Do you have a place to stay?"
Me: "No, I don't need a place to stay, I just - they're in America!"
Him: "And they left you here?"

And so on an so forth. He was plainly a nice old man who was touched by my totally out-of-proportion public display of grief, but unfortunately his kindness only made my crying worse. Everything made it worse, actually. The attention of one of the more sympathetic kids in my program, the worried glances of the administrators, the friendly Spaniards and their persistence in mistaking me for a Portuguese girl rather than an American - nothing helped until I wandered into a bookstore with a little English-language section, and bought myself Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night.

It's hard to explain why a darkly funny novel about an American who pretends too well to be a Nazi would succeed where peers, elders and MadrileƱos had failed. Partially, it was just the familiar voice, the colloquial American English that I was missing in the air around me. Partially it was the good, old-fashioned reminder that things could be a lot worse: I could be reviled by my entire country for my role as a propagandist in the service of a cause I detested, my only friends - ironically - wannabe neo-fascists trying ineptly to recreate Hitler's regime. Everyone I admired could want to kick my teeth in in righteous anger, and I could be beset by sycophantic bigots who wouldn't even let me hear my own thoughts. By comparison a bunch of drunk high-schoolers in a European capital don't seem so bad.

Undeniably, the humor helped - the author's ear for the ridiculous and true, and his unbeatable comic timing. But I think the single most helpful and calming - yet sobering - aspect of Vonnegut's prose on my overactive teenage brain was his knack of describing human society - adult society, complex society - as if to a child, thereby exposing how inexcusably ludicrous our behavior comes to be, and the way in which all of our excuses and the stories we tell ourselves only serve to make our behavior more preposterous, rather than less, as we like to think. In many ways it's a dark vision of the world, but looked at in another way it's a valuable tool, incredibly useful whenever one's lack of perspective spirals out of control. Reading Mother Night on those hot evenings in Madrid, while adolescent numbskulls partied above me, Vonnegut's prose began to force my brain to break the situation into its components: humans, lots of humans, doing their best (often not very good) and acting silly. Some humans like to drink fermented barley-water until they are so dehydrated that their heads feel like exploding - they do this night after night. Some humans feel bored at home and lonely anywhere else. So it goes.

I think that, as my friend Ariel suggested, we are more in need of such perspective now than I ever was as a grim sixteen-year-old. I feel grateful to Kurt Vonnegut for, among so many other things, showing me a hint at how to achieve it.


  • Funny that we were both 16-ish when we read KV for the first time...

  • I don't know about KV, but I love that old man, even if you did cry harder.
    I'm impressed again by your recall and perception!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography